Friday, December 7, 2012

Blank Spots, Secrecy, Aesthetics, and Trevor Paglen

Okay, I'm about to spin wildly into critical, semi-off-topic reverie, so apologies and warnings in advance. This post is so long, I've even put in subheads. It's been a while since I've been jazzed about something new (at least to me), and I've sort of been energized by two books by Trevor Paglen (whom I learned about in the New Yorker article, "Prying Eyes," Oct. 22, 2012) . The books bear long titles and subtitles: (1) I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have To Be Destroyed By Me: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World (2007); and Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World (2009).

These titles are arguably a little misleading, or at least limiting, because the books aren't really straight-up exposés of the Pentagon. Each book is quite different, but together they focus on the culture, significance, and resonance of secrecy in American politics, warfare, law, architecture, and geography.

Military Patches

The first book, I Could Tell You..., is small, seemingly incidental, and something of a curiosity. The cover actually bears a machine-sewn, circular patch with the book's title, similar in style to the military and secret program patches featured in the book. Paglen begins with a short history of military patches -- beginning with the American Civil War -- and then discusses the contradiction of patches that call attention to programs that are secret. In part, the patches build camaraderie -- and they also serve as real warnings to other people on a particular base. A patch -- worn by members of the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron -- that says "Don't Ask! NOYFB" means just that.

The patches include a mixture of iconography, though in similar styles. Several have skeletons: the wearers bring death. Many have ghosts or cloaked figures: secrecy. Some have animals -- references to project names or Lockheed's Skunk Works. Eyes for spying and surveillance. We see a lot of Latin phrases on patches, including a convoluted passive phrase that gives the book its title. The patches are at once kitschy, mysterious, and deeply chilling. This volume serves as a nice prologue to the secret world more fully described in the second book, Blank Spots.

Uncovering the Secret World

While Paglen describes himself as an artist (a complex issue -- see discussion below), Blank Spots has few images -- just one photo at the start of each chapter. Instead, the book charts Paglen's own varied fascination with secrecy in various manifestations. The son of an Air Force doctor, Paglen grew up on and around various bases, where he occasionally encountered adults with mysterious civilian and military duties. Once, the father of a friend was dropped off at work -- at the edge of a corn field into which he disappeared.

As a graduate student in geography at UC Berkeley (my own alma mater) -- working on the siting of prisons (once urban as a warning, now rural to go unnoticed and forgotten) -- Paglen increasingly noticed that "vast swaths of land, particularly in the Nevada desert, were missing from imagery collections." Blank spots on maps are not new, we learn. In the age of exploration, maps could contain state secrets and so they were closely guarded. But Paglen is surprised to find that this phenomenon remains true today.

You can immediately see what Paglen means by visiting Google Maps or Bing Maps. Look at Nevada. You'll see blank spots in various chunks of the state, notably to the northeast of Las Vegas, where experimental aircraft are tested.

Paglen's initial interest leads him to hunker down in a hotel room in Vegas, photographing unmarked "Janet" planes (737s) that ferry ordinary-looking workers to jobs at black sites deep in the Nevada desert. He also wrangles an invitation to a celebratory dinner thrown by the Flight Test Historical Foundation at Edwards Air Force Base, where three test pilots are honored for work on recently declassified projects. Paglen discovers "blank spots" in the program -- huge pieces of the pilots' biographies are missing because they worked on projects that remain classified. As the book progresses, we find blank spots in the federal budget (arguably a violation of the Constitution), blank spots in the catalogue of satellites and debris circling the earth (, enormous blank spots in history.

Paglen takes a step back to examine the historic rise of the modern culture of secrecy, beginning with the Manhattan Project. I offhandedly asked three educated, informed family members how many people they thought were employed by the Manhattan Project: two answered 1,000 and one said 10,000. These seem like fair guesses to me, and I might have said something similar. In fact, at its peak, the Manhattan Project employed more than 130,000 people. "It represented an industrial sector equal in size to the entire American auto industry." And yet this substantial industry remained unknown to the public, the courts, the media, and most of Congress.

The secret world grew substantially during the Cold War, except for a minimal retreat around Watergate. Its growth included legislation and court rulings, each discussed in the book. It expanded again at a terrific pace during the recent Global War on Terrorism. Today's key blank spots for Paglen are secret prisons that exist outside the law. He photographs one on the outskirts of Kabul. According to Paglen, approximately 4 million people in the U.S. hold security clearances to work on classified projects (the "black world"). By contrast, the federal government employs about 1.8 million people in what Paglen calls "the white world."

Aesthetics, Secrets, and Revelation

Blank Spots is mixture of primary and secondary history, investigative journalism, personal rumination, and more. Ultimately, Paglen has a point -- that secrecy undermines democracy and provides a foundation for the abuse of power.

But Paglen recently seems, at least partially and vaguely, to abrogate his own authority by identifying himself as an artist. And he is an artist -- by what he produces (photographs), by how he makes his living (grants and selling photos as art), and by his credentials (he has an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, on top of his Berkeley Ph.D. in Geography)).

In a tricky, mercurial (even secretive) stance, Paglen uses his aestheticism to step back from what might be the material impact (e.g., real-world change) of his work. For instance, in an interview in The Rumpus, Paglen casually notes that his long-distance photos of secret bases are "not produced in order to be evidence of some kind, or to reveal any kind of information at all. These are art photos." This is a statement of art for art's sake, for the value of the photos in and of themselves, as objects of beauty. I want to protest, though, that his photos are informed by a material agenda, in his words "to prevent the secret state from spreading."

But ultimately, it is worth understanding Paglen's retreat or progression toward art. Blank Spots, in its way, is a completed project, but he continues to photograph secret sites. There is something compelling -- regardless of politics -- about secrecy and revelation. The parallel existence of worlds seen and unseen, side by side, resonates; it excites the mind. It is the stuff of science fiction (think of The Matrix or "The Force"), mystery and crime fiction, the traditional and neo-gothic (think of Blue Velvet). 

From Paglen's website: "Trevor Paglen's work deliberately blurs lines between science, contemporary art, journalism, and other disciplines to construct unfamiliar, yet meticulously researched ways to see and interpret the world around us." What I find compelling here is that Paglen is charting a space in which his art exists for its own value but also simultaneously, separately, and deliberately does political (but not polemical) work.


As a postscript, I'd be curious to hear Paglen's take on secrecy outside government. Secret societies? Corporate and trade secrets? Arguably, the concept of the "secret" Coke formula adds value to the brand -- and then to the experience of drinking the soda. And so on.


Evan Lewis said...

Nice piece. But you'd best curb your curiosity about Coke. You could find yourself in a secret prison.

Doug Levin said...

Thanks, Mr. Lewis. I'm glad you made it to the end.

Anonymous said...

That's right Doug, no questions. As you get older the grand melding of interior blankness with that of the exterior will bring peace.

Doug Levin said...

Thanks, Chas -- though I don't know if your comment is comforting or unsettling. Locke's blank slate is under attack by the psychologists, neuroscientists, and such. This is also chilling in a way -- we're pre-programmed like robots.

Anonymous said...

We're deprogrammed like machete victims.